An Interview with Jillian Christmas
March 27, 2015
“When I Am Weak” is a monthly interview series by Brianne Nettelfield with people who are woman-identified, exploring weaknesses and finding strength within them.
Jillian Christmas is a Vancouver based poet, performer, arts educator, and community organizer. The two-time Vancouver Poetry Slam Championship winner has gone on to represent Vancouver at the Women of the World Poetry Slam twice, and will be attending again in 2015. Not content with taking the stage as a solo poet, Jillian also tours with musician Chelsea D.E Johnson. As if her to-do list wasn’t long enough, she continues to keep busy as the co-director of the annual spoken word festival, Verses Festival of Words and works with WordPlay, which connects poets with teachers and community organizers to bring slam poetry to the masses, especially of the high school variety.
We sat down to talk about her career, experiences of weakness, and how the loss of her close friend, fellow poet and educator, Zaccheus Jackson Nyce influenced both of those things.
BN: What makes you feel most fulfilled in your work?
JC: One of the things that makes me feel the most fulfilled in the work that I’m doing right now is being asked regularly to teach and share my experiences with youth. I think it’s so important to inform and enlighten young writers about the value of their own individual and unique voices. They have so much to offer and such a fresh perspective, and to empower them to use those voices is like a gift to me. I think that is probably the biggest marker for me of my success, as I know it. I feel like I have something to share, something that is really worthwhile to other people. That’s something that I value and really, it means the most to me.
BN: Tell me about a moment when you were weak.
JC: Well, if I’m really honest, I think I have a lot of moments of weakness. I’m a fairly emotionally driven person. I really value it, but sometimes it can color all kinds of things, including the mental illness that I deal with: the depression, anxiety and things like that. I think that because of that, I do regularly come face-to-face with moments of my own weakness.
One that stands out for me, and the one that I’ve been thinking about in doing this interview, relates to a very close friend of mine, Zaccheus; he constantly comes up in my storytelling. Zaccheus was an incredible artist and arts educator and someone who I learned a lot from. He had a really incredible ability to speak to all the students that he engaged with in workshops and have them listen, have them really just be excited from the very first jump. That’s not something that everyone is capable of doing, especially with troubled or at-risk youth. And sometimes those are the people who absolutely need it the most.
I remember the first workshop that I went to after his passing, there was a front row of young men who obviously had some behavioral issues, and some learning difficulty, and as often happens with those type of youth who often get left behind— they develop kind of a really thick wall around themselves. Zaccheus was very skilled at breaking through that because they kind of identified with him. For me, I try and break through that wall by being as honest and vulnerable as I can, but it’s not that same kind of immediate interest that the youth take in me that they might have taken in him. That was definitely weighing very heavy on my mind when I saw this row of youth and I was like, “Oh man, how am I going to get through to these guys?”
I remember feeling incredibly inadequate at that time. Feeling like they needed something I couldn’t give them [crying], and I knew who could [laughs]. That felt like weakness to me. Maybe it wasn’t true weakness, but it felt like I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any of the answers to reach them. It’s something that’s been difficult and has made me feel a little bit of that weakness; you know, that inability.
BN: Where’s that inability coming from?
JC: I think the weakness for me was the idea that I might not ever have what it might take to reach them. That’s a scary kind of thought for someone who feels like that is their life’s work. I just keep kind of tapping into the experiences that I did have with this person [Zaccheus] who was a really great teacher and mentor of mine. I try and remind myself that, you know, there are things that I can give students in the classroom that Zaccheus never could.
I think that it’s about shifting my perspective around it. Like in the same way when I’m on stage I use my nervous energy to pull out the best in myself. I feel like that kind of weakness or fear—fear of that weakness can be a driving force to make sure I am present, and connected, and giving every ounce of myself and just really engaged with those youth that I’m with. I feel like that’s exactly what Zaccheus did and it’s as much as you can ask of any teacher: to be there, to be present and really engaged. So, maybe the fear or the weakness is there for a reason.
BN: What kind of fear is coming up most for you there, in that moment when you’re teaching youth?
JC: I mean, I think it’s a lot of things. One is just that I know how important the job is. Not just in teaching poetry, which is important to me; I think it’s more than that… I think it’s making sure that youth are aware that people are invested in them and really care about them, not just as the idea of “the youth,” but their individual health and well-being and not everybody really has that experience. I feel like I have such a short period of time with so many of them the fear is that I can’t communicate how genuine and real that care is. Sometimes I give out my business card to them and say, you know, email whenever. And there’s a fear also in that—that I won’t necessarily be there every time they need to contact me. And I think sometimes that is what they need. So I keep giving out my card, [laughter] but I think that not being there for them in the way that they need me to be there is a fear.
BN: What does support in your weakness look like to you?
JC: I think it looks like a lot of things. Like I said, I have many moments of weakness and sometimes, you know, when I’m dealing with depression or anxiety or fear, I have a tendency to kind of go inward and close off without allowing people to help me. So something that’s really important to me and that’s really valued to me is having people reach out to me—to recognize that and to reach out to me in those moments. Some of the people who have been the most valuable, and who I just have nothing but love and respect for, are those people who have such a keen eye that they can recognize even at a distance when they’re needed.
I think that I’m learning, navigating depression and anxiety and fear and all of those things, that one of the biggest tools for me in surviving those things is gratitude and reminding myself of the support system, and of the people who believe in me. Knowing that these people have limited time and limited energy resources and they choose to invest a little bit of that in me, means something. It means that they’ve seen something valuable in me and they feel like they are going to get, in some way, returns on that investment, whether it be in the community around them or in the work that I’m doing, or that we’re doing together.
So I guess that I like to remind myself in parts, about you know, what people see in me. And remind myself to see that in myself. I guess following the example of the leadership I’ve seen and kind of doing the things, the work, in spite of the fear, and in the face of it. Every time that I do that, I know that I am capable of doing it again. And so it pushes me forward into the next terrifying thing.
BN: I like that, “Into the next terrifying thing”—like it’s never not terrifying.
JC: [Laughing] No, it’s always terrifying, you just push forward.
BN: What does it feel like when you’ve conquered your fear—when you’re not feeling weak anymore?
JC: I feel like there are a lot of moments like that, where I guess I defy the negative speak that happens sometimes in our heads, and I do the thing that maybe something inside was saying I couldn’t do. I think that that happens regularly, which is I think, maybe a good thing. Like I said, I had a lot of fear and anxiety in that first workshop coming back after Zaccheus had passed and I think that probably for a month or two after that, every workshop I did I would cry before, I would cry afterwards, and it was just a part of the process. Pushing through that has felt, in a way, really healing and successful to me.
I’ve had a couple of workshops in the last month, for instance, that I did with another poet, and we went in and I was equally scared. I knew it was going to be kind of difficult for me, especially seeing the class and recognizing kind of immediately that a lot of them were really “hip hop heads” and maybe they weren’t going to be impressed with my style of poetry or what I had to offer them. But going in anyway, and doing my poems as much as I could possibly do them—really leaning into them—and having the whole front row of these “hip hop head” kids like snapping for me and really reveling in these stories that I was sharing with them—that felt good, it felt like something I didn’t expect. Maybe I thought that I would not connect with that kind of archetype of youth ever or something like that. But it felt like, possibility, and that was really nice.
BN: What would you say to other women living through their moments of weakness?
JC: I think that there are a lot of things that I could say to other women, other people who are surviving their moments of weakness and how to thrive in that. A lot of them might sound really cliché. I think that the clichés exist because they’re true. All of the “really believe in your own power” and all of those things are true and useful but they’re not always things that we have access to in our moments of weakness or that our minds allow us to believe in those moments. So I would say, that, my best piece of advice would be to surround yourself with people who know how brilliant you are and will remind you. I have a lot of people like that.
Try not to be afraid of asking for help. I think it’s really undervalued. In those moments of really dark weakness one of the scariest things can be, for me, asking for help and showing that weakness to other people—letting them into that space, where you don’t feel polished or stage ready or any of those things. I think that sometimes if we don’t let people into those moments of weakness we can get lost in them. Find people that you are comfortable trusting when you need to ask for help.